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Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways: Looking Ahead to the Rebuilding of YMM

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Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways: three of the oldest and most established neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray, Alberta, and now known as those most deeply impacted by the Horse River Fire that tore through Wood Buffalo in early May. Home to tens of thousands of community residents, these areas were the ones to incur the first losses on May 3, and the ones that suffered the most significant total destruction of homes. Even after other residents were able to return to the community and their homes in June, the residents of these areas – now often referred to as ABW – were unable to return home to stay. This was true even if their properties remained standing, as the areas had been deemed a concern due to the toxins left behind by the destruction. In late August it appears the first phase of residents with habitable homes, at least in Abasand and Beacon Hill, will be allowed to return home to stay; for residents of Waterways the wait to return continues. For those with homes in ABW considered total losses, the wait will be even longer.

As residents of these areas begin to look towards rebuilding their homes, the variety of experience is as unique as the individuals themselves. For some, like Aileen Landry and her husband Matt, who lost their duplex home in Abasand, rebuilding is an opportunity for change: “Our house was built in 1978, so the idea of being able to upgrade a lot of things is extremely appealing.  We’re hoping to move from duplex to a detached home, as it would be a wise financial move while we have the opportunity.  Just have to wait to see how things play out,” says Landry of one of the unique challenges faced when the rebuild involves not a detached home, but one that is attached to one or more others. Landry says the rebuilding of duplexes will add additional layers of complexity for many: “Because technically you share the building with someone else, there has to be conversations and compromises - it is going to make rebuilding difficult for a lot of people.”

Peter Fortna, another resident of Abasand and owner of a duplex lost in the fire, also has some thoughts when it comes to rebuilding his home and the opportunity to make some changes. “I’d like the new property to be energy efficient and eco-friendly. As a tech savvy person I would like the house to be as “smart” as possible, but much will have to wait to see what is possible after zoning decisions are made,” says Fortna, referring to the same challenge the Landry’s have identified, and whether they will be able to move from duplexes to fully detached homes under municipal zoning.

For Lisa Whelen and her family in Beacon Hill, rebuilding a detached home is a given as it was a detached home, in which they lived for twenty years, that was lost in the fire. For the Whelen family, one of the options they are exploring is an RTM, or “Ready To Move” home, which would potentially allow them to be in their new home in a significantly shorter period of time than a traditional build.

“Time was a factor in our decision to look at RTM homes,” says Whelen. The Whelen property, currently under the clean-up process with SPECS, could be ready for a new foundation as soon as this fall, with the potential to move into the finished home in 2017.

While some look towards the future and the rebuilding of their homes in Abasand and Beacon Hill, residents of Waterways, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the community, face a very different scenario.

“We can’t meet with builders or look at plans,” says Yvonne Ormson, who lost her home of nine years in Waterways. “We don’t even know if we will be given a development permit and allowed to rebuild,” she adds, referring to the tremendous uncertainty facing those who lost their homes in this area.

Waterways, which has experienced significant flooding in the past due to proximity to the Clearwater River, faces a unique challenge in the rebuilding process. The provincial government continues to examine the case of Waterways, and whether it will permit rebuilding in a known floodway. This adds another layer of complexity and stress for residents like Ormson, who feel stuck in the recovery process and unable to move forward until they know if they will be able to rebuild in Waterways or will need to consider rebuilding their homes in other neighbourhoods.

“We need answers,” says Ormson, anxiety clearly notable in her voice. “Even if the answer is that we cannot rebuild in Waterways, we need to know that. We cannot make plans, and without a plan we cannot recover from this experience.”

Just as the residents face their own challenges and struggles, local builders who quickly stepped forward to assist in the rebuilding acknowledge they will face their own difficulties, but are determined to conquer them to help the community recover from this experience as quickly as possible.

Shawn Chaulk of Stratford Contracting/Stratford Homes LTD., says: “It’s a very monumental task and I am not even sure if contractors realize the amount of work that needs to be done.  Luckily for us, we have had relationships with sub-trades that have lasted for many years and we are all ready for the upcoming work. We have already purchased a lot in Wood Buffalo from someone not wanting to rebuild.  We are fast tracking a show home and office in that neighbourhood so that our clients have somewhere to come and meet with us on their files.  It will be busy, but we are ready and looking forward to seeing people smile again.”

Chaulk says Stratford’s position as a local business will be a significant advantage moving forward: “Knowing the local “system” in terms of permitting and code is very important and helps advance things more smoothly, not to mention our relationships with the inspectors and authorities.  Pre -fire we were an insurance contractor, so we are very well versed in working on insurance claims and dealing with adjusters in terms of defining work scope and executing them.”

Chaulk also acknowledges that there are some issues ahead, many based on the sheer number of rebuilds: ” I think our biggest challenges will be getting enough homes rebuilt in a timely fashion.  Let’s face it, 2500 or more structures is simply a large number.  We all have a capacity that we can take on effectively and it’s important to identify that and enforce it.  So let’s say there are 10 “local” builders that can take between 20 and 50 homes each per annum.  That’s a maximum of 500 homes per year.  So at the end of the first “build”, we will have 500 people back home, but what about the other 2000?  Do we then start 500 more and so on, or do out of town builders come in and start snapping up the balance?  People only have so much insurance to live elsewhere during the rebuild.  This money runs out in 1-2 years.  People are going to become very frustrated with the waiting game and this will lead to bad decisions like history shows.  The bottom line is that everyone cannot be “first” with their rebuilds.  Those on the tail end of this undertaking are going to have to be very patient or end up being very, very frustrated.  I honestly feel extremely bad for the frustrations that lie ahead for many.”

Residents of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways face tremendous challenges, and may be in need of an ally and advocate; local lawyer Don Scott of Don Scott McMurray Law Office says a lawyer may well be able to provide the advice and assistance they are seeking.

“Residents need someone on their side, whether they are dealing with insurance companies or building contractors,” says Scott, who estimates his firm has helped over 300 families deal with fire-related issues since June. “Lawyers understand insurance policies, building contracts, real estate, land titles, zoning and all the other issues that residents who suffered the loss of their home may face. Lawyers are there to represent the client and to ensure the best possible outcome for them; they are in your corner, one hundred percent.”

On the long road of recovery and rebuilding lying ahead, there is no doubt many uncertainties, frustrations and challenges will be encountered. The common experience of the fire is now giving way to the unique circumstances each resident of Abasand, Beacon Hill and Waterways faces; the collective strength of the community and the residents will be tested. Ormson, resident of Waterways, says: “I still choose to be here. Right now, I just need the answers so I know what my future here looks like.”

Perhaps that is what is the most compelling, though: the determination of residents to rebuild and remain in the community, regardless of the challenges they face. 


A freelance writer, blogger and professional communicator who is passionate about her child, her work, her pets, her community and the power of words, Theresa Wells believes perfection in life is achieved when she is surrounded by amazing people, fantastic stories, cold gin and really hot shoes.